Going pro: What's with all these second-tier sports?

Though on the fringes, niche competitions offer sponsors big prospects for integration

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Hunter s. thompson once said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." But even Dr. Gonzo probably couldn't have predicted how this maxim would work itself out in today's weird media world, where audience fragmentation and the proliferation of media channels have led to a surge in professional sports.

No, these aren't the fields of dreams that produced Ruth and Staubach. Instead, these are organizations such as Professional Bull Riders and the National Professional Paintball League. There are pro hunters (World Hunting Association) and pro lacrosse players (National Lacrosse League). Fans-as well as advertisers and sponsors-can regularly enjoy watching pro gamblers and pro eaters ply their skills.

"While I think you are seeing a growth in these sports, I think you're more accurately seeing the opportunity for these niche sports to be exposed," says Andrew Judelson, chief marketing officer at Sports Illustrated and former VP-corporate marketing for the National Hockey League. "With the growth of both traditional and new media delivery channels, the barriers to entry have come tumbling down."

ESPN recently acquired an equity stake in the two-decades-old Arena Football League and will feature AFL games on Monday nights when the National Football League is in recess. The network also telecast three events sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating last year, including the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest.

Meanwhile, Comcast Corp.'s newly renamed Versus network-formerly OLN, which originally stood for Outdoor Life Network-offers regular telecasts of a menagerie of niche sports, including bull riding and lacrosse.

FINDING A NEW STATURE

"There have always been those sports," says Paul Swangard, managing director of the James H. Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, "but I certainly think that they've elevated their stature in the last five years."

In part, this has to do with marketers' intensifying interest in sponsorship, which, like new media, has benefited from anxiety about the future of the 30-second commercial.

"Ten years ago, the stereotype [about sponsorship] was that it was the CEO's pet project or pet sport," says Eric Wright, VP-research and development at researcher Joyce Julius & Associates. "It's certainly become much more sophisticated than that. More time goes into deciding what's the best fit and, once that's determined, how can we maximize our investment?"



North American companies will spend almost $15 billion on sponsorships in 2007, 66% of it on sports, according to researcher IEG. "As sponsorship has increased, more dollars are flowing into the sports marketplace," Mr. Swangard says, "giving these other sports the opportunity to be alternative platforms for brands that may not be able to get into the NFL or the NBA."

Such niche leagues, in turn, have multiplied the sponsorship opportunities. These emerging properties tout their ability to reach an avid, tightly targeted audience, and, unlike their larger competitors, these niche sports are often more aggressive in integrating marketers into the action.

"Why some of these emerging sports have benefited is there has been an ability to be much more aggressive with in-competition marketing platforms," Mr. Swangard says. "You're not going to get your logo on a uniform in the NFL. [Traditional] sports are much more controlling vs. these other sports that are really more [indicative] of why Nascar enjoyed so much success, because it's a 200 mph billboard going around a track, and it's always been built that way."

"We're definitely more flexible than the big four sports," says Matt Miller, director of marketing for the National Lacrosse League, which recently launched franchises in Chicago and New York. "We have to do more service for our sponsors to attract them since we are a smaller league. We are open to jersey patches and helmet stickers. We can be really creative with the sponsors." Such strategies have landed the NLL deals with Reebok International and Chrysler Group's Dodge, among others.

"Marketers are looking for places that they can have ownership," says Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN/ABC Sports Customer Marketing & Sales. "These growth/niche sports are a place where you can create that kind of ownership in a wide variety of media, which frankly is sometimes harder in bigger sports because of either encumbered positions by category or the restrictions that a given league has."

"The good news is that there's a lot of experimentation that could go on within these properties," says Peter Land, general manager-sports and sponsorship at PR giant Edelman, New York. "The tricky part is that they're a little bit untested. You're not exactly sure what you're going to get, and, frankly, the numbers are still pretty small."

Then there's the question of how much is too much.

"It's always about being able to find a way to strike that balance of how many partners, how much branded content, how much integration of these marketers can we honestly live with before it becomes sort of an infomercial," Mr. Swangard says. "Everybody struggles with the notion of how do you make this type of marketing authentic. You strip away reality TV from sports TV, and a lot of the content is very similar, but supposedly what makes sports different from reality TV is that it's authentic competition."

True enough, says Richard Shea, co-founder of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, which often faces charges that it's not a sport at all. "We have fun with that obviously," he says. "A sport is a physical activity governed by a set of rules, so ours clearly meets that definition."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the IFOCE was created by Mr. Shea and his firm, Shea Communications, as a pure PR play, a promotion for client Nathan's Famous of Coney Island, which sponsors a hot dog-eating contest every Fourth of July.

"Other sports have added pageantry," Mr. Shea says. "We were born for pageantry."
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